In four sessions of the GABF, I ventured to the Pacific Northwest section only once. Why sample beer that's readily available at my corner pub? One trip was necessary, though: despite the fact that they're located just a few hours up I-5, I've never had a chance to try the lagers of Chuckanut. This is a great tragedy, for as I age, I pine more and more for the subtle, spare flavors they offer--all while living in one of the most heavily ale-centric regions of the country. So Chuckanut--two-time winner of the GABF's best small brewery in its four years of existence--tantalizes me from across the Columbia River.
One always wonders, though: is a brewery that weighted with heavy medals really that good? Chuckanut makes (or has made) upwards of two dozen styles (including 13 lagers and a kolsch), and I only got to try four. The old researcher in me wants to acknowledge the sample bias, but based on my admittedly non-comprehensive sampling, the answer is yes.
Will Kemper is one of the pioneers of craft brewing, having founded another lager brewery in Washington, Thomas Kemper, in 1985. Since then, he's been involved in start-ups literally all over the globe (US East Coast, Mexico, Turkey) before finally bringing his experience full circle with another small lager brewery in Washington State.
The lagers he's brewing are brewed faithfully to contemporary standards--no amping up the hops or alcohol content to appeal to local audiences. There are no curveballs, just familiar styles brewed flawlessly. His Vienna Lager won a hat trick by taking gold three years running (it failed to medal this year), but the two beers that wowed me were the Helles and Pilsner. The pils was described as "German," but I swear the tangy, spicy hopping was Saaz. It was a delightfully crisp and clear--balanced by a lightly sweet, grainy malt base. (12.5 P, 5% ABV, 38 IBUs)
The Helles was, if anything more impressive. Pilsners are regarded as the crowning accomplishment of German brewing because they require such attention and have such a tiny sweet spot for success. I sometimes feel the Helles style is even more so. Chuckanut's is in perfect balance, again with lightly sweet grainy malt, softer than the pilsner, gentle spicy hopping, and a finish that was just a degree smoother and rounder than the pils. (12 P, 5% ABV, 20 IBUs)
The only complaint I have is an obvious one: why can't Chuckanut send a few kegs to the Beaver State?
PHOTO: Will and Mari Kemper and the Chuckanut crew accept the award for best small brewery at the 2011 GABF.